As promised, here is another meditative practice that includes a reflection question that is repeatedly asked. If you haven't read my post "What's the longing inside the longing?" then I suggest you do so only because it provides the framework for this next exercise. The intent behind this meditation is to help our attention expand to include the joys that often fall beneath our radar. In my post "Taking the Road Less Traveled," I talked about our brain's built-in negativity bias. I was first introduced to this concept in Rick Hanson's book The Buddha's Brain, and I've since become fascinated by the brain's predisposition to latch on to the negative. Rick Hanson says it best: "In effect, today our brains have a well-intended, universal learning disability because they've been painstakingly built over millions of years for peak performance...in Stone Age conditions." To read a post by Rick Hanson on the negativity bias click here.
Our amygdala, which is home to the fight, flight or freeze response, is actually formed by the time we're born! Whereas, our pre-frontal cortex isn't fully matured until we're in our early 20s or even later. The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for helping us organize, plan, make decisions, control impulses, sustain focus, and reflect. Now, why is it important to know this? From the moment we are brought into the world, our brains are ready to pick up on danger and threats. It's nature's "well-intended" way of helping us stay alive. Back in the Stone Age our ancestors were living in a time when their environment was full of threats and ferocious animals. Those who dropped their guard to admire the beauty of a sunset risked being seriously injured or eaten. Those that were anxious and remained on-guard survived and passed their genes on to the next generation. Many of us (myself included!) may even feel a bit anxious at the idea of releasing our grip on anxiety. We've become habituated to ruminating about things that went wrong or anticipating all that might go wrong. In short, as Rick Hanson said during my positive neuroplasticity training, "Our brains are hardwired for survival, not quality of life."
I don't believe anxiety is bad or wrong. It's not the enemy. All emotions have an inherent wisdom that must be respected. Being anxious actually helped me get through a difficult stretch of time. My challenge, however, is that I often still buzz with that same level of intense anxiety and it's now hindering my ability to find a sense of ease. Relaxing does not come naturally. Perhaps, you can relate to some of what I shared and, in that case, here's the exercise Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield gave us to help our mind-body soak up those experiences that the negativity bias often blinds us to.
Again, we were partnered up and the question I was repeatedly asked was - What brings you happiness? After each answer, my partner would give me the space to absorb what I had just shared before asking the question yet again. You can change the language so that this question resonates with you, but it's crucial that you allow yourself time to be with each of your answers. It's not enough to just note a pleasant experience and then move on. We need to feel the pleasant experience in our bodies and be with that experience for at least a couple breaths if not a few minutes. My answers were not grandiose but rather simple such as staring up at the mysterious nighttime sky, swimming in the ocean, receiving an I-got-you-it's-okay kind of hug from my husband, listening to the summer sounds of crickets and cicadas, the memory of my cat brushing her cheek against mine...
After the five minutes were up, I rested in this felt sense of joy by exploring what I was aware of in my body. Was there tingling anywhere? A sense of expansion? Lightness? Ease? Warmth? After the exercise ended, we were given a thirty minute break and during that time I noticed my mind was scanning the environment and picking up on all sorts of pleasant experiences like laughter, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the interplay of sunlight and shadows. I thought of that saying energy flows where attention goes and, perhaps for the first time, felt the full weight of that wisdom. Now, I'm not doing this practice to cover up or dismiss any pain or suffering but rather to, as William Blake wrote, "kiss the joy as it flies." The practice of taking in the good helps us counter our brain's natural inclination to color or perception by fixating on all that is wrong, imperfect, bad etc. We can be aware of our pain and pleasant experiences just as the sky can hold both the sun and the clouds.
In my next post, I will speak to the obstacles and surprising reactions that sometimes occur when we incline the mind to take in the good. Stay tuned!